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What does Mexico's Cielito Lindo song have to do with a bandit hangout in Spain?

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Chances are you've belted out your share of “Ay...ay, ay, ay” choruses in that timeless Mexican song about a lovely lady with dark eyes. Everyone knows Cielito Lindo, right – even if you've never been to Mexico. And even if you have no idea what “Sierra Morena” means in the first line. Or why the lady's eyes are called “contraband.”

Like most Latin golden oldies, Cielito Lindo (written in 1882) has several versions, and lots of meanings. In one translation, the lyrics are said to have come from 17th century legends about a mountain range in southern Spain called the Sierra Morena. The Mexican-born composer, Quirino Mendoza y Cortes, is believed to have heard yarns about bandits hiding out there, and of a cielito lindo (roughly meaning a “lovely sweet one”) who was somehow smuggled – here, the meaning is particularly fuzzy – out of the hills. Hence the word, “contraband.”

Besides dark, flashing eyes, the lady was said to have a lunar (a mole) near her mouth. The blemish got into the song this way: Ese lunar que tienes (“That mole you have”). The composer (apparently a mole man) goes on to say. “Don't give it to anyone...it belongs to me.”

I am a captain, not a sailor

Like your “ay ays” in Cielito Lindo, you've likely sung lots of “bam, bam, bambas” between verses of La Bamba. And you've probably heard that the ballad, popularized by Ritchie Valens in his 1958 chart-topper, is a happy Mexican wedding dance.

Well it is, usually. But one version of the lyrics – and there are many of them – tells the story of a guy who loved and lost, and who turned up being anything but happy at his ex-girlfriend's wedding. The song ends this way: “Oh I ask you out of compassion, that La Bamba end and another song start.”

No one knows when the song was written, or even who wrote it. What's known for sure is that it's a classic Veracruz son jarocho tune, typically plucked out on a gut-string harp backed by three or so guitars. (People down in Veracruz have been known to cringe when they hear Ritchie's rock version.)

What's the meaning of La Bamba's iconic words, “I am not a sailor, I am a captain?” Ask that question in Veracruz, and the answer you most often get is, quien sabe (“who knows”).

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